The Washington Ballet’s production of “The Sun Also Rises,” Ernest Hemingway’s acclaimed novel of the “Lost Generation,” ended a brief run at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater this weekend, and that’s a shame.
It’s unfortunate that the ballet, created by Washington Ballet’s artistic director Septime Webre, wasn’t seen by more people, because it was a rare mesh of art and entertainment, the interpretation of a great work of literature through dance adding a layer onto our appreciation of the gifts, talents and time of Hemingway.
Webre didn’t re-imagine the book, nor did he slavishly perform an act of dignified homage. It was something much better—a kind of improvement of the original by adding tactile texture, a visual environment that was kinetic and often spectacular, a richness of music and movement, and an energy that was often downright dazzling. It allowed dance to add a different sort of emotion to the whole, without taking away Hemingway’s directness, his naturalistic prose style, a blunt honesty and tension which worked its way into the choreography of the pas de deux, the solos and the out and dances.
It was a considerable artistic achievement on the part of the Washington Ballet, its company and, especially, Webre, the kind that in the least should be re-mounted in another season, as was Webre’s ballet of “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quintessential novel about American success stories, which now appears to be enjoying a financial, if not entirely a critical success as a Baz Luhrmann film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Webre’s vision achieved this: it fleshed out the novel to give us the heart and spirit of the times. It immersed us into the imagined details of time and place, something Hemingway did with muscular prose and pitiless, sometimes pithy, dialogue. We could see how the characters—the sexually and spiritually wounded journalist Jake Barnes, the pugnacious, aggressive Princeton boxer Robert Cohn, and Lady Brett Ashley, the dazzling, charismatic and restless woman the two men both love—live, spend their days and nights, shadowed and haunted in Paris and in Spain by the war to end all wars, and instead laid the groundwork for World War II.
It’s 1926, Paris, and crowds—the ballet company of couples, gendarmes, artists, romantic rivals, writers, dancers, bartenders, hangers on, street ladies and just ladies and girls, a Greek count, and can can dancers, and boxers are always on the move—dancing in the hotel, eating and dancing and flirting and bristling in the Paris days and nights. Jake loves Brett, and Brett loves Jake but sleeps with other men. Robert wants Brett but fails to keep her. And the stage is always full—except when it’s not and a couple of times the rich, growly voice and presence of E. Faye Butler makes for a presence, singing American blues as in “You Got to Give Me Some,” like dirty rice in a jambalaya.
Webre appears to have just let his imagination roam—conjuring up great giant mystical masks at a parade for the running of the bulls in Pamploma, creating a bullfight, letting the can-can dance loose in a rush of bright skirts and garters and yelling. The backdrops are flickering silent movie newsreels of the times, giving us a hint of the frantic energies on display and the even bigger disillusionment it hides. And always, Hemingway’s words appear as opera-like supertitles, most memorably when Jake offers that he and Brett being in love would be “fun.” “It would be hell on earth,” she says
Hemingway let the couples’ frustration at being unable to complete their love stand as a symbol of the huge frustration and cynicism that arose after the catastrophe of World War I. You get a sense of that in the dancing—tense but also deeply sad—of Jared Nelson—and the dances involving him and Brett, performed with a mysterious lightness of being that is compelling by the talented Sona Kharatian.
Billy Novack’s original music and arrangements heightened the sense of the particular and familiar. It had a frenzied melancholy, flavored by flamenco, a touch of Brel, Chevalier and Piaf as well as a soulful beat that hung over the production.
It wasn’t perfect—it had to go where it had to go. It included a fishing trip that is much praised in the novel for its description of action and nature but doesn’t result in a visual or dance equivalent.
History—and their own melancholy—defeats the characters in the end no matter how strong their feelings. Webre illustrated it with one grand, overpowering image that filled the stage. La Vie en Rose, indeed.